Il trionfo del tempo e disinganno: Handel reimagined as a suburban psychodrama – with devastating results

Hilary Summers as Disinganno and Hilary Cronin as Piacere
Hilary Summers as Disinganno and Hilary Cronin as Piacere - Genevieve Girling

Now that operatic productions of concert and church works are ever more common, from Bach Passions to Schubert’s Winterreise and Verdi’s Requiem, there is open season on staging any piece with a dramatic intent, which is justifiable if it helps to drive home its contemporary relevance. Handel’s earliest oratorio of 1707 actually has characters as its four soloists, but at first sight their names are puzzlingly generic: Bellezza (Beauty), Piacere (Pleasure), Tempo (Time) and Disinganno (Disillusion).

This is a dramatic allegory of the kind beloved by Handel’s Italian patron and librettist, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, as Beauty anxiously contemplates a future where she will not go on being beautiful, while Pleasure encourages her to embrace hedonism and Time argues for a virtuous life. For the Early Opera Company and the Buxton Festival, director Jacopo Spirei has achieved something astonishing, which is to wrench these debates into a deadpan portrait of a dysfunctional English family gathered for Christmas lunch, a time at which as we know politeness can tend to disintegrate. The tense relationships are deeply strained – think Abigail’s Party or Talking to a Stranger.

How well they are characterised here: Beauty (Anna Dennis) as the platinum blonde in the sparkly dress left over from the party;  Pleasure (Hilary Cronin) as her wayward punkish sister with her heavy boots on the sofa; Time (Jorge Navarro Colorado) a repressed father with a thing for his daughter Beauty; and most touching of all, Disillusion in the form of Hilary Summers’s achingly agonised mother, trapped in the ritual of setting the table and downing a G&T.

None of this would work were the musical observation and the dramatic detail not so acute, and if the music under Christian Curnyn’s direction were not so aptly reflected on stage. Time’s lesson about past, present and future is reflected in his Christmas present boxes: they unpack an unhappy family history which lead to photos strewn from an album and trampled underfoot. But the box marked “Future” for Beauty turns out to be empty – she confines all her extrovert past to a nearby coffin, discards her blonde wig, and curls up in a chair to accept her fate in a broken aria which is surely the most downbeat ending Handel ever conceived.

Jorge Navarro Colorado as Tempo, Hilary Cronin as Piacere, Hilary Summers as Disinganno and Jorge Navarro Colorado as Tempo
Jorge Navarro Colorado as Tempo, Hilary Cronin as Piacere, Hilary Summers as Disinganno and Jorge Navarro Colorado as Tempo - Genevieve Girling

Dennis sings Beauty’s succession of demanding arias with cool aplomb, only wanting a little more flexibility to warm the precision, while Cronin’s Pleasure dances aimlessly but then steals the show with the tune everyone knows, Lascia la spina – which, like several other numbers in this prophetic score, Handel later reworked in several contexts. Colorado’s Time is a clear-voiced father with a seeming hidden past as an adventurous sailor (one of several moments where the text’s original imagery springs to life); he duets perfectly with Summers’s Disillusion in their ominous duet as they abandon Beauty to her fate. As a reflection on the human condition and the dynamics of family life, this imaginative recreation will surely send a jolt of recognition through every audience – which is exactly what allegory aims to achieve.

Until July 18;